Is the New York Times Biased?

By Allison Brennan

I had debated against writing this blog two weeks ago because I didn’t want it to come across as sour grapes. I actually wrote another blog for today, one about smart women in fiction vs. stereotyped femme fatales and bimbos. But as I was preparing my next “lesson” for the online group I’m teaching this month, I put together some statistics about bestseller lists and something jumped out at me. I may be making a few enemies, but at this point, I think someone needs to publicly talk about bestseller lists in general, and the New York Times in particular.

Nothing I say here is proof of anything. It’s just a comparison of the major bestseller lists for October 2007 and October 2008 and something in them that I think is odd. Coupled with the fact that the New York Times does not share how they compile their bestseller lists makes the whole process shadowy. We know, for example, that USA Today gets their numbers from very specific places, and we know that Walmart does not report to USA Today, for example. USA Today rankings most closely resemble the Bookscan numbers which is compiled from point-of-sale (POS) transactions weekly. Bookscan claims to track about 70-80% of all book purchases, and that may be true, but they certainly don’t track 70% of mass market sales. If you are a mass market author selling at Walmart, Bookscan reflects closer to 20-25% of your sales for the first quarter, and over a twelve month period maybe 35-40% of sales. Plus or minus. Because every author and distribution plan is unique.

In addition, different books and authors are released every month and every year so to do a proper analysis of the lists someone with more time and resources than me should pull together every list for the last three years with an algorithm to give an average % of books by genre that are released each month and when in the month. I’m sure some sharp statistician would know what to do; that would not be me.

I’m just looking at raw numbers. And I wasn’t going to write the article not just because of sour grapes, but because I know that publishing is fluid: there may be a glut of romance novels one month, and fewer the next month. But when I looked at the NYT, PW and USAT, something jumped out that made me think that I’m right. And JT’s “genre wars” rant got me thinking that if there was no genre designation, my theory wouldn’t hold any water because there’d be no genre designation in the files.

My theory?

The New York Times and Publishers Weekly use roughly the same formula for figuring out bestsellers, and that formula is biased against romance.

Playing Dead is my second bestselling title based on the first eight weeks of sales (Killing Fear is the first.) Playing Dead (10/08) sold more than twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil (4/07) which debuted at #10 on the New York Times list.

We all know that the month of release is hugely important: who is the competition? So to go up or down on the list is not a problem because one month might have a glut of bestsellers. For example, March 07 was a heavy-hitter month and I told my agent that if I was going to hit the print list, I had to do it with my Feb 07 book (Speak No Evil) because See No Evil in March had much more competition-both the number of releases and the heavy-hitter authors. Speak came out #14, See #20. And See had higher opening week numbers. So the ups and downs of the lists is no surprise to me and honestly doesn’t bother me: as long as my sales are doing well and my publisher is happy, I’m happy.

Walmart is hugely important for mass market authors. First, Walmart customers buy a lot of books, but because they are cost conscious, they buy mostly mass markets. Walmart offers very few hardcovers, and those on their shelves are the mega-sellers like King, Grisham, Roberts, Rowling, and Evanovich. Mass markets dominate their book aisle, discounted by a dollar or more. At some point at the end of 2007, Walmart stopped reporting sales to the New York Times. I don’t know if anyone knows why, but it happened and everyone in the business knows it. Around May of 2008, Walmart started reporting again.

But the lists were not the same.

The New York Times does not share with anyone how it compiles its bestseller lists. The general consensus is that they send out a list with pre-printed titles that are most likely to sell well. (How they come up with that list I have no idea.) They send it to a large sampling of booksellers and other retailers where books are a major item in the store. These people fill it out with sales information and return them. (This may be done online now-again, I have no idea . . . maybe a bookseller reader here knows more than I do?)

They do acknowledge that they adjust the numbers to represent a statistical sampling of all such stores.

I had always felt, as a mass market original author, that the NYT weighted their lists and gave more weight to books sold at independent stores than to books sold at mass merchandisers like Walmart. And that may very well be the case-we don’t know because they won’t say.

But whatever they did in the past, they changed it. In the past, the system may have been weighted slightly against romance novels, but since romance makes up 50% of mass market sales, and 39% of all fiction sales according to the RomStat report issued by Romance Writers of America we all know the genre is strong. (Note: The RWA research firm has changed and the last RomStat report is looking at other factors so there is no good comparison in numbers, though they reported that Romance is the leading fiction genre and is growing as a percent of market share even with the slowing economy.)

Playing Dead, which sold twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil eighteen months before, debuted at #26 on the NYT list and #37 on the USAT list. I could dismiss the poor NYT slot as being released in a competitive month (October.) And I would have, except that I’m really curious and did a comparison of publicly available information.

With the exception of my debut novel, The Prey, which had one week on the extended list, all my books have enjoyed 3-4 weeks on the NYT list. Until Playing Dead. It fell off after one week.

Week Two: Playing Dead was still in the Top 50 of USA Today (46), so I was optimistic that I’d stay on the NYT another week. Since USAT tracks point-of-sale I figured the book was doing well, even with the slight opening week drop from Killing Fear. (After all, our economy is in the tank.) But I fell off the list–and I’ll admit, I was surprised.

I think what really irked me is that the titles that bookended me on USAT (at numbers 45 and 47) were numbers 4 and 11 respectively on NYT. This was the first real clue that something wacky was going on. Full disclosure: #4 was a romance title that I know sells very well at the major chain bookstores and online. I don’t know if it was at Walmart-I sent my mom out to investigate and she didn’t see it at two Walmarts, but that doesn’t mean much because sometimes buys are regional, or it could have been sold out. I don’t know.

But just looking at the raw numbers told me that something was off. The following week, seven titles that were lower than me on USAT (I was at #55 that week) were on the print NYT list. I wasn’t even on the extended.

So, until tonight, this was all I had. And I looked at the facts and knew that it sounded like sour grapes and complaining. And it’s not. Seriously, every author that hit the NYT list deserves it and I’m honestly happy for them. It’s like entering a contest. All the finalists are great and deserve it-but we all know that there are other great books out there that didn’t make it for one reason or another that’s more subjective based on judging than anything else.

But the NYT claims to represent the bestselling books in the country. At the minimum they should tell their readers how they compile the list, and what has changed in the past year.

Why do I think something has changed?

In October 2007, romance novels (based on RWA membership-there could have been additional romance novels that hit who weren’t RWA members, such as Nicholas Sparks) enjoyed more weeks on the NYT and PW bestseller lists than in October of 2008:

NYT OCT 07
1 – 24
2 – 28
3 – 26
4 – 22
TOTAL: 100

PW OCT 07

1 – 9
2 – 9
3 – 8
4 – 6
5 – 4*
TOTAL: 32

NYT OCT 08
1 – 16
2 – 14
3 – 21
4 – 16
TOTAL: 67

PW OCT 08

1 – 3
2 – 6
3 – 8
4 – 6
TOTAL: 23

* PW tabulates differently than the NYT and had five weeks for October. To make it as fair as possible, I didn’t count week 5 for PW in the numbers-but it doesn’t seem to affect the numbers. If I did include it, it proves my point even more.

* Also, these numbers reflect hardcover, trade, and mass market bestsellers-the NYT and PW lists tabulate book release formats separately; USAT has all books-fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paper, adult and children-on the same list. To be fair, I included all formats tracked.

* FYI: The NYT list comprises their top 35 bestsellers by format in h/c, trade, and mass market; PW is top 15 by format; USAT is top 150 ranked across all formats and genres.

* While this may not include ALL romance titles, it’s comparing apples to apples, ie RWA members for all lists.

There was a 33% reduction in romance list weeks in the NYT and a nearly 30% reduction in PW (if I’m doing my math correctly. And if I add in the 5th PW week because they use different days, then it’s almost dead-on the same percentage as the NYT reduction.)

Looking at this means nothing, really, because like I said above the lists are compiled from books selling that week. If there are fewer new romance releases, then the numbers will go down.

But when we look at USA Today, we see something completely different:

USAT OCT 07

1 – 24
2 – 15
3 – 10
4 – 13
TOTAL: 72

USAT OCT 08

1 – 25
2 – 25
3 – 21
4 – 20
TOTAL: 91

This is a nearly a 25% increase in romance title weeks on the USAT bestseller lists in these same months.

All I want is to know how these lists are compiled. Is the USAT list a true POS comparison? Can it be if they don’t include Walmart? And is the NYT intentionally, or through their statistical methodology, discriminating against romance novels?

And does it matter?

I would argue it does matter, but perhaps not as much once you can use the NYT bestseller designation on your books. Most readers don’t know or care how the lists are compiled. My sales may continue to increase and I may never hit the print list again, but because I have hit it in the past I can use NYT on my books. Yet, the industry perception may be that my career has hit a stumbling block. It won’t matter that my sales are strong and increasing, I’m not hitting * the * list. It may down the road affect distribution with vendors and wholesalers who look at the stats and wonder what’s up.

Honestly, the only thing that really matters is the bottom line. I know many authors who have consistently sold well over a long period of time, outselling many of the bestselling authors while they themselves have never hit a list.

But who it really hurts are the midlist romance writers trying to breakout and touch the holy grail . . . to be able to call themselves a New York Times bestselling author.

I just want to know what that means.

38 thoughts on “Is the New York Times Biased?

  1. Catherine

    I’m having flashbacks to a communication subject I did last semester. We had the essay question of ‘Is inclusion in a best seller list a true indication of a book’s merit?’ It nearly did my head in as I couldn’t work out the methodology of each best seller list. So I can only imagine the frustration an author must feel trying to make some sense of this.

    In some rough (not referenced)notes I did come across a point that the different technologies may also be influencing the definition of best selling books. eg.kindle provides a product purchase without the limitations of a publication run. Goodness only knows how this variable will be attributed?

    Allison have you come across the NYT’s article May 13 2007 ‘The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller’ by Shira Boss?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/business/yourmoney/13book.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

    It’s old news but still some interesting perspectives.

    Reply
  2. caite

    I may be naive, but why would these publications, be it the NY Times or Publishers Weekly or USA Today, not be clear and upfront about how they come up with this list, what data is being processed and how they do it?They don’t have anything to gain or lose from who makes the list….do they?

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  3. Allison Brennan

    Thanks for the link, Sandra, and I didn’t know graphic novels weren’t included, but unfortunately it makes sense. There’s some other books that aren’t included, I can’t remember what. Maybe the Bible or something. And they also did something when the split the paperback list into trade and mass market (because their favorite trade books were not making the list — books they’d reviewed and had ads for — so to give them a “fair” shot, they split the list.) They also removed books that were “perennial” bestsellers. I believe these were mostly classics that still sell well because they’re required reading so there may be a huge increase of sales for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in August. USAT, however, will show these sales.

    Lesa, I believe book sales (like all other sales) have gone down across the board, but look at the USAT list–romance sales have gone up as a percentage of the books sold. So they may have gone down, but they’ve increased their market share–so I think you’re absolutely right. I think hardcovers have taken the hardest hit, and since romance is released overwhelmingly in mass market it’s natural that market share will increase. BTW, I forgot to state above that the romance stats I quoted are ADULT FICTION, not all books.

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  4. Allison Brennan

    Catherine, merit has nothing to do with book sales because whether a book has merit is completely subjective. How would we define it? Some people think mystery novels are a dime a dozen formulaic pulp fiction–just read JT’s article! But some do very well . . . do they have “merit?” I don’t believe Kindle copies are included because e-book sales aren’t included in sales data as far as I know. But my e-book sales are a teeny-tiny far less than 1 percent of my total sales. There are some book who are e-book bestsellers, but they are selling a fraction of what most print books sell, even the “small” books.

    Caite, great question and I completely agree. Polling firms and others put in a margin of error and tell us who they polled (though that’s biased as well because they only poll people who have listed phone numbers, and it’s not a true statistical sampling because people who choose to not list their numbers are a huge subset of the total population. Listed numbers doesn’t have the same demographics, even among the same gender/age/regional groups. Maybe in the past, but the group is too large.

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  5. pari

    Allison,Here’s how cynical I am: I think these lists aren’t transparent because there are absolute biases built in AND I suspect that if the data doesn’t match these biases, then it’s changed.

    That isn’t a reflection on the books themselves but on the papers’ number crunchers, policies, advertisers etc etc. I guess I came to this conclusion when I found out that the NYT numbers didn’t have to do with sales but with number of books ordered. (I’ve got to give a presentation today and can’t find where I read that info quickly, but it made a difference to me.) So many books are ordered on pre-pub hype and so many of them are returned/damaged, that I just sort of lost faith in the “lists as validity” POV.

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  6. Allison Brennan

    Pari, you’re right to a degree–based on orders and print runs, and based on that determines if you’re on the pre-printed NYT list. However, it’s not solely orders otherwise there are some books that would never have hit at all. I’ve been told by other authors what their print runs are and they are relatively low, yet they hit. (Largely due to velocity–but now velocity doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to.) And, when you look at the bookscan numbers (I get the top 100 romances) you know that those who consistent hit (Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, Linda Howard, Julie Garwood, Lisa Kleypas, Sherrilyn Kenyon, etc. etc) sell in huge numbers and certainly that’s reflected on the NYT list. I was #7 on the romance bookscan list opening week. That would have put me, roughly, between 15-20 on the overall mass market bookscan list.

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  7. JT Ellison

    I wish the numbers and sales figures were more like the music industry and the movie industry, where it’s practically transparent. THAT would be a nice change.

    Thanks for laying this out., The more we know about how all this works, the better off we’ll be!

    Reply
  8. Missy

    Doesn’t the NYT list pull mainly from independent bookstores? I know it’s only anecdotal, but the four indys I shop at have all significantly cut the number of mass markets they carry. The owner of one said there’s more profit in trade and that people looking for MM just want the cheapest book possible so won’t be buying from him anyway. If that’s a trend, it certainly would affect romance’s place on the lists without an actual NYT bias.

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  9. Tom

    Then perhaps I’m tied with you, Alex; I came up in the “of course we cheat” years of pop music accounting. Publishers may be more honest, but I’ll never believe there’s no agenda to the method of compilation and calculation.

    Reply
  10. Neil Nyren

    Just a few comments, though I’m more familiar with the hardcover than paperback side of things.

    The bestseller list is always based on actual sales, not orders or print runs, in a particular week. NYT, PW, and the others collect the figures from their participating stores, and the week’s list is based on those. If orders or print runs had any part in it, then you would never have the spectacular flameouts in which large numbers of copies are ordered, consumer interest is ho-hum, and the book never appears on a bestseller list.

    Orders and print runs do sometimes enter into what titles appear on the pre-printed lists, but the Times takes into account a number of other factors, too, concerning the author, book, subject or publication. And there is plenty of room for write-ins, which the accounts use vigorously, and from which many bestsellers have been made. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have those surprise bestsellers that noone had figured on in advance.

    Finally, I’ve never talked with anybody at the NYT about how they do their weightings on the list, and of course they wouldn’t tell me anything if I did. One reason is that their particular formula is proprietory. Would Coke tell people their formula? Another, perhaps more important one, is that if it were completely transparent as to who their stores were and how they applied their weights and balances, then it would be much easier for authors and publishers and agents to try to game the list. And that wouldn’t be of benefit to anybody, except the gamers.

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  11. Philip Hawley, Jr

    Allison, the numbers you quote make it almost impossible to draw any conclusion other than the one you offer. Clearly, the NYT is culling romance titles from its list.

    What the NYT calls a “bestsellers” list is in reality a list of those titles the New York Times anoints as having sufficient culture significance to compete for a position on their list. The New York Times used to disguise its disdain for us common folk. Nowadays, it puts its hubris on full display for all to see—even its obituaries sometimes grind an axe.

    It’s ironic. The NYT has shed its once-great journalistic roots in favor of something that more closely resembles Orwell’s 1984.

    P.S. I don’t read romance novels, generally, but I’ve read three of Allison’s books, including Playing Dead. She’s a great writer, and her novels are equal parts romance, thriller, and suspense. If you haven’t yet read any of her books, you’re missing some great stories.

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  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Neil, I will always be the first to admit that I am the worst at math, but the concept of a proprietory formula for the lists – THAT I get.

    Thank you!!

    In other words, it’s as calculated and random as Oscar wins. Which is what I always assumed.

    (And just as a point of trivia, I’ve won thousands of dollars over the years handicapping the Oscars. Maybe I should try my luck at bestsellers. Is there a NYT betting pool?)

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  13. Catherine

    Allison, the subjective nature of merit, combined with what seemed like an inexplicable system was part of what had me gnashing my teeth. That question about merit came from my lecturer who liked us to gnash our teeth..she thought it showed we cared.lol.

    I consider myself in no way genre or literature phobic.I just like to read – a lot.I’m an equal opportunity reader that likes to be entertained. I’ve come to believe that the true merit of a book is in the impact to the individual reader and the shared societal memory it evokes, not necessarily it’s bestseller status or on whether its defined as genre,subgenre or literature.

    Thanks for mentioning how Kindle is viewed at this point too.

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  14. toni mcgee causey

    I see Neil’s point about the formula being proprietary, like Coke’s formula, but there’s a point where I think we draw the line, as consumers. We’re willing to let Coca Cola have a proprietary formula, but for safety’s sake, we also insist on knowing the ingredients. For fair play’s sake, the NYT ought to be able to clarify what is and in not included in their lists. When a reporting facility makes it their job to argue for transparency in, oh, say, government, then they ought to be smart enough to be an example of that fair play they’re pushing for elsewhere, especially since it is not marked “opinion” or “op ed” and is put forward as factual.

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  15. Jim

    I thought I saw something once where publishers and authors knew where they were going to land on the list even before the book was released and made available to consumer and therefore hadn’t even officially “sold” at all. I think it had something to do with calculations relating to the number of books printed and the number that would be in stores etc. I don’t know, maybe I’m thinking of a different list …

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  16. Rachel Hauck

    I don’t see calculating a best seller list the same as Coke’s formula for a soft drink.

    If they want to have some random book list, then have secret formula.

    Best seller indicates something. Best. Seller. As in this book has sold more than any other in the nation and deserves to be on this list.

    If they want a NY Times Best Book list based on sales, and reviews or other mystic formula, then they can keep it a secret. Otherwise the words “best seller” are misleading.

    My 2 cents. ;)rachel

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  17. Michelle Gagnon

    Fascinating article, Allison. I always thought the lists seemed a little funky. And Bookscan is clearly way off, they’re never even close with my numbers. I wonder why a better system hasn’t been implemented yet, with everything computerized it seems like there would be an easy fix.

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  18. Allison Brennan

    JT, I’ve always believed that it’s important to know as much as we can about the business. I believed the same thing when I worked in the legislature, which, like publishing, has it’s own set of rules. I’m still optimistic about publishing because I DO understand that publishers want to make a profit (and therefore authors will make money) but it’s just the way things are done doesn’t make sense when compared to other businesses. So, I try to know as much as possible, use my experience as a barometer, temper it with the experience of others, and try to stay “employed” (i.e. published) for as long as possible. Because I love writing and think it’s the best “job” on the planet.

    Louise, I’m with you. Most agents don’t recommend basing your bonus structure (if you have one) on hitting lists because everyone in the business knows it’s a crapshoot. Some of my contracts have had bonuses, some haven’t. But it was never based on lists–only actual sales.

    Missy, I don’t know how the NYT pulls lists but I do believe they disproportionately weigh books sold in indies. Here is what they state on their website regarding the compilation of the list:

    “Rankings reflect sales, for the week ending XXXX, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of general interest books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. An asterisk (*) indicates that a book’s sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above. A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders. Among those categories not actively tracked are: perennial sellers; required classroom reading; text, reference and test preparation guides; journals and workbooks; calorie counters; shopping guides; comics and crossword puzzles.”

    To me, this seems that they “add” numbers to the indie stores and not to the others venues. Is that fair? I don’t know. It’s certainly not accurate, at least based on bookscan numbers — which aren’t accurate, either, but at least are based on actual sales (just not from every venues selling books.)

    Indies historically, except for a few stores which tend to be new and used, don’t stock romances unless it’s the biggest authors. This may be because indies prefer hardcover and trade where the margins are higher. I don’t blame them–they don’t make as much as on a mass market–which is called that partly because the book is packaged for a “mass” audience and therefore priced accordingly. Romance readers tend to read more books per week and most people can’t afford 5 hardcovers a week.

    When I went to the famous Tattered Cover in Denver, I fell in love with the store. It’s just like my favorite indie in Santa Cruz when I was in college. Full of books. Huge. Multi-leveled. They had TWO bookshelves for romance. Two. Out of hundreds and hundreds of bookshelves. However, I wasn’t stocked in romance–I was stocked in mystery/suspense, one copy each of the first two books of my prison break series. No backlist. (As opposed to other mystery/suspense authors who had a full backlist available.) I’m not blaming them or anyone–if my books don’t sell in their store, I don’t expect them to stock them. My local indie, Tower Books, orders two copies of my new release and when those copies sell, they reorder. The thing is, they are always reordering (it IS my local store, so I have more friends and family who will shop there) and so if someone goes into the store and can’t get my book, either they’ll never buy it or they’ll go elsewhere.

    Anyway, I’m digressing. I don’t expect indies to stock books they can’t sell or don’t appeal to their readership. I do expect the NYT list who claims to represent the bestselling titles in the country to treat all sales as equal.

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  19. Allison Brennan

    LOL, Alex. I was very naive 🙂 But I also used to be a huge idealist before I actually worked in the capitol . . .

    I should probably clarify that the books that hit generally DO sell well, and velocity (rate of sale) has a lot to do with list placement. I have no problem with any of the titles that have hit the list. I’m sure they deserve it. The thing is, if it’s biased against one type of book–whatever genre the book is–then it isn’t representative of what the buying public is reading, and therefore that should be stated in some manner. And yeah, in some ways it’s a bit of sour grapes because I honestly thought my last book would do really well on the list. Another thing is an author I know who was #5 or #6 on bookscan and debuted in the 20s on USAT didn’t even HIT the NYT list. At all. Like me, every mass market on the top 50 of USAT hit the PRINT (top 20) list, except her. This was also a romantic suspense title.

    Tom, my royalty statements are pretty understandable and very detailed–the most detailed that I’ve seen (I’m working on the royalty committee for NINC)–and if they’re cheating in any way, it’s not intentional. One of the biggest problems is that many vendors don’t have point-of-sale numbers, or they hold returns for months and months and then dump them en masse. But one thing I do like with RH is that I always know my actual sales. The “unknown” is not counted as sold/returned so sales and sales. Not all pubs do this.

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  20. Becky Hutchison

    Interesting blog, Allison. The other day I read the USA Today’s Top 300 list and was amazed at the dearth of women authors in general, not just romance authors. I would think with so many readers being female that the percentage of bestsellers written by women would be much higher.

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  21. Allison Brennan

    Neil, you’re right, though titles pre-printed on the list have an edge (IMO.) I don’t find fault with that system. But I disagree that they need to hold their “formula” close to the vest when they claim the books are representative of what’s selling in America, but they aren’t. USAT doesn’t count all sales, but they do count actual sales and state on their website where they get their information (which is I believe bookscan or the bookscan POS system.) And most groceries and drug stores don’t have a POS reporting system (though I’ve heard from one of the wholesalers that this is slowly changing.) I don’t get those numbers for MONTHS, and this is a substantial percentage of my total sales. My publisher doesn’t even get these numbers for months, so I don’t think the NYT does, either. I could, very well, be wrong. Thanks for chiming in!

    Phil!!! Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m really glad you liked my books. Your comments dovetail nicely to JT’s post on Friday about the “Genre Wars.” Whether they want to anoint titles based on cultural impact, or whether there’s a more economic reason–such as garnering ads on their diminishing book pages or to draw in well-known by-lines or what–I couldn’t say. I just want truth in the media and, yes, until the NYT puts OPINION on it’s bestseller list, I expect it to be as accurate as possible.

    Catherine, great point about reading. I read widely, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve turned more to commercial fiction–thrillers, mysteries, romance and science fiction–than literary fiction. I read far more “literary” style books and not just because of school. I think it was more me being an avid reader and wanting to read everything. Now, because I have less time to read, I choose books that please and entertain me–not books where I have to think too hard or where I get depressed about human nature. I read enough true crime for that.

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  22. Allison Brennan

    Toni, you said it far better than I did 🙂 Thanks 🙂

    Jim, I heard that rumor many times as well, but it’s not true. When we say that we “will debut” on the NYT list, it’s based on one short week of sales. But the NYT prints the lists two weeks after the week it’s reporting on. So, for example, the week ending 10/18 was printed in the NYT on 11/2. Basically, Wednesdays can be hell for an author who has hit or is expecting to hit the list. Between 1-3 NY time, the new list is sent to subscribers (publishers and agents and other newspapers are probably the largest percentage who receive it.) Agents and editors call their authors if they hit (or sometimes if they didn’t.) So my book came out 9/30 (Tuesday) and the sales for that week through Saturday are compiled and reported as “bestsellers” by the NYT the following Wednesday (10/8 in this case.)

    Thanks Rachel! Great point 🙂

    Michelle, you’ll be able to predict what percentage bookscan is based on your sales numbers. The only good way to do this is to get your numbers after two weeks and two months (at the minimum) and look at the bookscan numbers and then wait until your one year royalty statements and see what all those vendors who don’t report POS sell through was, and then you can estimate in the future. Ha! Lots of work for something that you can do absolutely nothing with except give yourself ulcers (no, I don’t have an ulcer, but then again I also have low blood pressure.) But I know based on where I sell books that bookscan is roughly 20-25% of my sales during the first eight weeks. Some authors are higher, some are lower.

    Hmm, Becky, I don’t know about that . . . the only way to tell this would be to compare the total number of books published by gender, (i.e. 60% by men, 40% by women) and then compare to the bestseller list to see if the breakdown is about the same. But I don’t think there is blatant discrimination here . . . if anything, some women tend to take male names or gender neutral names when they write in genres outside of romance. (JT Ellison, PJ Parrish, Perri O’Shaunnessey, PJ Tracy, JK Rowlings, Alex Kava, JA Jance . . . to name a few.)

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  23. Catherine

    I’m trying to be more of an equal opportunity reader as quite frankly I was almost exclusively reading genre fiction.(which I could depend upon to entertain me) I hadn’t realised just how unlikely it was for me to reach for I considered a ‘literature’ genre book, until I was drinking champagne with a bunch of friends regularly and they’d be telling me about these books, and I’d be thinking who, what…are we going to the same library? So now my base line for entertaining reading material has expanded. Still like clear story arcs though.

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  24. Becky Hutchison

    Allison, I see your point. As we don’t know the percentages of books published by or sold by gender, it would be hard to understand the reason for the disparities between the number of women-authored to men-authored books on the USA Today bestseller list. And, for that matter, I was only looking at figures for one week. So I guess to make a supportable argument, I need to determine the pattern throughout the year(s) and compare it to last week’s figures.

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  25. Becky Hutchison

    However, as numbers tend to fry my brain (especially this late at night), for now I’ll leave that comparison to someone else. 😉

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  26. PG Forte

    I may be the world’s biggest cynic, but…The New York Times, publisher of the Literati Bible (The New York Times Book Review), is biased against Romance? Who’d a thunk it?

    Seriously, while it’s interesting to see the numbers, not exactly a surprise and, frankly, I’m mystified by the outrage. There are still a whole lot of people who don’t consider Romance ‘real’ books. I can’t be the only one to have noticed this?

    Perhaps The New York Times is getting their numbers from airport bookstores? Apparently romance readers buy groceries but they don’t fly much.

    Of course, there are a great many more people, including many of the current and past Board Members of RWA, who don’t exactly consider ebooks to be ‘real’ either.

    C’est la vie.

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  27. Allison Brennan

    You and me both, Becky. Maybe someday someone will do it, but I don’t know that it would even say anything–to honestly figure out statistically whether there was bias against female authors you’d have to figure out how many men vs women submitted manuscripts to publishers, for example. And how many were bought each year as well as published and how many hit lists, etc. Some of the information is simply not attainable, and so much of it is subjective–IF (and that’s a huge if) there is a bias, does that mean the publishers are biased or the readers? I don’t think we can ever know. It’s why I get hugely frustrated when people criticize the nominees in contests, like the Thrillers, that only a couple women are finalists. I don’t believe the judges are biased. I think there are more men writing thrillers and those women writing thrillers/suspense are “romantic suspense.”

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  28. Allison Brennan

    Hi PG: You’re certainly not the only one who notices that romance novels are considered inferior, but that’s beside the point. Most readers believe that the NYT is tracking actual sales, or a close variation thereof, in determining the list therefore it MEANS something to readers–otherwise no publisher is going to put the label on the book. It means something to industry people, even, who KNOW that the list is weighted and inaccurate–such as book buyers who then order more books because the last book by that author was a NYT bestseller. The designation affects people’s careers, therefore if there IS a bias against a genre that makes up a large portion of the total sales, then that IS important and I can’t simply just say, “Well, we’re screwed.” I doubt I’ll be able to change anything, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to shine a light on the practice.

    However, the key point in this is that while they MAY have had a bias last year, this year it’s overwhelming. SOMETHING changed in the way they tabulate the lists otherwise the number of romance titles wouldn’t have gone down on NYT while going up on USAT–which we know (because they tell us) are tabulated using POS numbers where available, and the USAT list most closely resembles the bookscan list, which we know is compiled with POS information.

    To go down 33% in romance titles hitting lists while USAT has gone up 25% shows me that they are deliberately manipulating the data to exclude women’s fiction and I think that is wrong. And if I’m wrong, I want someone to tell me. I have no problem admitting I’m wrong if someone shows me the facts.

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  29. Frances Drake

    Allison,

    Thanks for a very interesting post and stimulating discussion. I want to contribute to one point which was raised: the matter of proprietary receipes and transparency. The NYT list was compared to the Coca-Cola formula. IMO, that is an apples and oranges comparison. Coca-Cola’s financial existance depends upon the secrecy of their fomula. Not so with the NYT list! There is no financial excuse for withholding the information of how the list is compiled except that there is hanky-panky going on, most likely of suspects being the advertising department. What is the phrase? Motive, Method, and Opportunity?

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  30. Brenna Lyons

    I can’t say how accurate it was, but I read an interesting article about a year ago that dealt with how the NYT gets its bestsellers. As I understand it, it goes like this. NYT takes their list not from sales but from orders.

    The article stated that the initial spike of a book on the NYT bestseller list would reflect presales and orders to stock bookstore shelves in the brick and mortars, before the book actually went on sale. IF the book rose from there and/or stayed on the list more than 4 weeks, it was proof that there had been REORDERS, indicating good sales on the first batch.

    On the down side, this wasn’t proof of “sales.” If (theoretically) the book hit the NYT bestseller list for the initial bookstore orders placed, and every copy was stripped, you could be a NYT bestseller without selling a single copy. Likely? No, since the amount of marketing poured into books with those sort of orders placed (the placement that money buys and so forth) will ensure some books sell, somewhere along the way. Still…it was an interesting article.

    Brenna

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  31. Allison Brennan

    Brenna, that argument about orders has pretty much been disproven. Orders matter because that affects print run which effects whether you get on the pre-printed “poll” that the NYT sends to their reporting bookstores, but as Neil or someone pointed out, bookstores vigorously use the write-in portion.

    If orders determined placement, I know many authors, including me, who would have been much higher on the list. My books, other than my debut and my last book, were all on the list for 3-4 weeks.

    Thanks Frances for that explanation! I wholeheartedly agree.

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  32. Robin Agnew

    I know the NYT also does not even include Christian books which I think are a giant segment. And while (as an indendent bookseller who does not report) I know Indies report, their sales #s are going to be way different from Walmart. I do think the NYT picks & chooses a bit. And there’s a bias against mass markets – though why I couldn’t say. (To me the mass market is the perfect reading vehicle.) I think a lot of the “counting” is out there in the ether and it’s impossible to quantify or figure out.

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  33. RfP

    Allison: “‘independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets)’ … To me, this seems that they ‘add’ numbers to the indie stores and not to the others venues.”

    The basic idea makes sense. They get national numbers from the big chains, but only single-store numbers from the indies. Weighting indies is necessary to get a national picture.

    That said, they may be making a couple of important errors. First, extrapolating a few indies’ sales to represent all indies only works if indies’ stock is relatively homogeneous. I doubt that indies are that homogeneous; certainly they’re less so than big chains.

    Second, how does NYT define an eligible indie? Some of the indies counted are genre specialists. E.g. the mystery bookshop near me is counted; is it representative of “all indies”? At the same time, I doubt that romance specialty bookstores are among the indies counted, because in my experience romance specialty stores also sell a lot of used paperbacks and many do a brisk trade in swaps. So I suspect you’re right that the weighting discriminates against romance, not because weighting is bad but because of the indies selected for the count.

    JT: “I wish the numbers and sales figures were more like the music industry and the movie industry, where it’s practically transparent.”

    Yes… transparently corrupt 🙂 A year or two ago I read an article on the process by which the RIAA certifies gold and platinum albums. A gold album in the US means 1 million *orders*. A celebrity’s album (Jessica Simpson’s, maybe?) only sold 225k copies but still went gold.

    A band whose album released in the same month pointed out that *they* sold out their entire 900k pressing immediately, and so likely could have hit 1 million in actual sales, had their label invested in another 100k copies. They wondered whether the celebrity’s management had bribed stores to over-order. So… one album sells 900k, no gold; another sells 225k, goes gold.

    Neil: “[NYT’s] particular formula is proprietory. … if it were completely transparent as to who their stores were and how they applied their weights and balances, then it would be much easier for authors and publishers and agents to try to game the list.”

    The stores themselves may want that information held close. The more transparent the list, the more it tells about specific stores’ business.

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